After taking over Mosul and some other cities in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) or with its new name Islamic State (IS) has launched a large offensive against Kobane (Ain al-Arab) on Wednesday, July 2. ISIS attacks supported by 10 tanks and other armored vehicles including US Humvees, were concentrated in the west of Kobane around several villages mostly against Zormixar, a strategic village overlooking town of Jarablus.
One important difference of these recent attacks is that ISIS has been employing many Western made heavy weapons seized from Iraqi army around Mosul in the past weeks. Moreover, YPG sources are stating that Iraqi generals from the Saddam era have joined ISIS and are coordinating the attacks against the Kurds. The main questions for Syria analysts was whether or not the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) had advanced weaponry and military capabilities that could repel these attacks and keep control of the region.
Two days after the offensive, on Friday, the YPG withdrew from Zormixar and other villages after ISIS bombarded the region with over 3000 mortars. Although YPG forces stated that this was a tactical move, some analysts interpreted this as a sign of possible defeat. After fierce clashes between the two sides, YPG forces managed to take back control of Zormixar as well as Khrab Ato, Bayadia, Ziyareteh and Jadidah villages. Currently some smaller scale clashes continue with remaining ISIS fighters, but local sources say the situation is pretty much under YPG control and the morale of the people of high.
YPG Media Office announced on Sunday, July 6 that ISIS offensive had been broken and around 200 ISIS fighters were killed. Sources that I spoke with in Kobane also verified that a lot of ISIS fighters had been killed and that their unburied bodies were scattered all over the battle field. Local sources also report that some of the fighters were blonde haired and bright skinned in appearance. According to YPG statements around 40 of their own fighters lost their lives in these recent attacks.
YPG also announced that its forces destroyed several ISIS tanks and other vehicles as well as seizing a wide range of weapons and ammunition.
Why Does ISIS Focus it’s Attacks on Kobane?
ISIS attacks against Kobane are significant for several reasons. First, with the recent confidence gained by taking over Mosul and other cities in Iraq, ISIS wants to expand its control over a larger territory of Syria as well. After seizing two oil fields from a rival extremist group, ISIS wants to seize Kobane which remains in the middle of territories under its control. ISIS currently controls Girsespi (Tall Abyad), Jarablus and Raqqah. It desperately wants Kobane to connect the regions under its control and make it a part of the “Islamic State”. Taking control of such an important city will enable ISIS to seize new territories from the direction of east and west, in addition to connecting Tall Abyad and Jarablus.
Furthermore, being a border city with Suruc of Sanliurfa province of Turkey, seizing Kobane will also allow ISIS to control the Mursitpinar Border Gate with Turkey as well. It is well known that ISIS gives specific importance to border gates especially for trade, easy crossing for fighters and logistics, the treatment of injured fighters etc. In this regard, it is increasingly likely that ISIS will plan attacks on other border crossings controlled by the Kurds like Serekaniye and Til Kochar (Yarubia), and crossings controlled by rival Islamist groups in Azaz.
In addition, ISIS also wants to cut Kobane from the Kurdish Mountain Region (Kurd Dagh) or Canton of Afrin and Canton of Jazira (Hasakah). As of now, moving between three Kurdish Cantons is difficult. According to local officials, currently hundreds of civilians are also held hostage in Jarablus and Tall Abyad. Also some 130 Kurdish students who were kidnapped by the group remain in captivity for over a month after they were kidnapped as they were returning from school exams in Aleppo. Despite all calls from international human rights groups those children and other civilians are still not released and are being used as a bargaining chip to pressurize YPG, according to local human rights defenders.
If Kobane falls to ISIS, such a possibility will bring some additional advantages for ISIS to further pursue its goals. It is apparent that ISIS does not hesitate to use any means to seize the city including kidnapping civilians and crucifying them, destroying houses and taking properties and even cutting off the water of the city.
Due to the fact that the taking of Kobane will be very advantageous for ISIS, it is not holding back from committing all sorts of cruelty against the people. ISIS is kidnapping civilians, publicly crucifying them and killing them by torture. Local sources are frequently reporting that ISIS is ransacking civilian homes and confiscating civilian property. As a matter of fact, it is well known that ISIS has on several occasions cut off the drinking water supply to Kobane.
One other factor to remember is that Kobane is the first city in Rojava to have been freed from the Assad regime on July 19, 2012. Therefore, the city has a special meaning for Kurds in Rojava. If the Kurds lose this city it will also have a demoralizing impact on them and their struggle for self-rule. Therefore, attacking Kobane is also attacking the massive gains of the Kurds in Syria, and a message for Kurds that ISIS [and its regional supporters] will not allow Kurdish autonomy in Syria. YPG sources and local officials expect that ISIS will be very likely to intensify its attacks as the second anniversary of the Kurdish takeover of the city approaches.
In fact, already news has come in that on Monday and Tuesday July 7and 8, ISIS launched new attacks on Kobane from the south and the east. YPG announced that in the fighting that occurred 35km south of Kobane close to Kunheftar, 40 members of ISIS were killed and that 2 YPG fighters had lost their lives.
YPG, along with the Kurdish Front (KF) and some other Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades, also managed to break ISIS attacks from the east of Kobane which were aimed at sandwiching in YPG forces from both directions. It is known that there was intense clashes between YPG fighters and hundreds of ISIS fighters supported by tanks from Tall Abyad who had launched an attack that began on Monday, the 7th of July and continued on Tuesday and Wednesday. Local sources reported that the YPG had destroyed several tanks and killed tens of ISIS members while also adding that the YPH had also suffered serious losses.
On the 9th of July, news came in from Kobane that 2 of the YPG fighters had possibly lost their lives as a result of a chemical weapon. It is worth reminding that the internationally respected Syrian Observatory For Human Rights also reported on this allegation on Wednesday.
As of now, despite ISIS’s possession of advanced weaponry from Iraq, it has been unable to gain the upper hand over the YPG, known for its high military capabilities, its discipline and its popular support. However, as stated above, it is highly likely that ISIS will continue its attacks. In this regard, the statements of the administration of the Kobane Canton, PYD leader Salih Muslim and, on behalf of the KCK, Murat Karayilan on Kobane are very important. Local officials say hundreds of Kobane residents are returning home from neighboring countries to defend their city. Also, hundreds of Kurds from Turkey crossed border to fight against ISIS alongside YPG forces. It is without a doubt that the future of Kobane is both significant for the Kurdish gains in Rojava, and also for the Kurds in other parts.
ISIS Attacks on Hasakah
In the long run reaching Hasakah is one of the major goals of ISIS. But, Hasakah is currently controlled by three different forces, YPG (in Kurdish side of the city), Assad and the opposition. So, it is not that easy for ISIS to take control of Hasakah, but they certainly want to expand their control in Syria.
Hasakah City is the administrative center of the Hasakah governorate. It is an important road junction near the Turkish and Iraqi borders. It is also an important agricultural region; wheat, rice, cotton etc. It is also close to the oil fields in north (Ramalan area). In a way, controlling Hasakah will provide any group with an important advantage over the others.
Given YPG’s superior military capabilities, discipline and its large popular support base it makes it very difficult for ISIS to defeat YPG in Kobane, Hasakah or elsewhere. Even with advanced Western weaponry ISIS obtained from Iraq seem to have not helped the group to seize Kobane thus far.